Another Funder Doubles Down on a Place-Based Strategy. What's the Lesson Here?

When we last reviewed the Heinz Endowments, it was one of three Pittsburgh-based foundations that stepped up and saved the August Wilson Center, the city's iconic African American cultural center, from extinction. We couldn't think of a more appropriate example of a foundation taking a chance on supporting the arts. Heinz Director Grant Oliphant summed up the grantmaker's role most succinctly, noting, "part of the value that foundations bring is that they can be a little more courageous."

But now comes word that Heinz Endowments, Pittsburgh's second-largest foundation, has decided to refocus its grantmaking strategy. Should arts organizations be worried?

Our one-word prediction is "nope."

First, let's look at how Heinz aims to recalibrate its grantmaking strategy. Then we'll look at the drivers influencing this change and lastly, what it may mean for Pittsburgh-area arts organizations.

Heinz met with 86 local nonprofit leaders from the environmental and economic development sector and articulated a new strategic focus that includes making the Pittsburgh area "more sustainable with initiatives including clean air and water, green and energy-efficient buildings, healthy food, and plenty of services for veterans and military families."

To those of us following urban philanthropy trends, this pivot isn't particularly Earth-shattering. Like many of its peers, Heinz is doubling down on a place-based strategy, a decision driven by the city's transition toward a sustainable, post-industrial creative center for new industries and its workers. In short, Heinz finds itself responding to changes in the urban economic landscape.

So what does this mean for Pittsburgh nonprofits, particularly those in the arts sector?

For starters, Heinz will boil its five traditional grantmaking areas — arts and culture; education; environment; children, youth, and families; and community-economic development — down to three: sustainability, creativity, and learning. Oliphant envisions an "intense focus" on initiatives that advance technology, leadership, and racial and gender equity across these three new areas. Secondly, Mr. Oliphant said that the new strategy may mean fewer, but larger, grants. (In 2014, Heinz gave out $74 million.) Third, Heinz will more rigorously measure the impact of grants.

Now, at this point, we imagine directors at arts nonprofits may be slightly nervous. The term "arts and culture" vanished from Heinz's grantmaking model. It plans to give out fewer grants. And while the impact of the arts can be measured, the return on investment may not be as cut and dried as in other sectors.

But don't get too nervous.

As we've seen elsewhere across the country, arts is an integral part of place-based philanthropy, and we see no evidence to suggest that it won't be a key component of its vision for Pittsburgh, particularly when the term "creativity" pops up in both the new grantmaking model and in Oliphant's comments. Secondly, we stopped by Heinz's website, and its Small Arts Initiative, designed to advance the development of small, professional arts organizations and the artists with whom they work, is alive and kicking. According to the site, a total of $500,000 in funding is available in 2016. Grants range from $1,000 to $20,000, with an average of $8,000.

Lastly, if you read between the lines a bit, you'll find that the arts will, in fact, play an important role in Heinz's vision. Although hordes of New Economy urbanites will have to find something to do in their spare time, Heinz isn't framing the arts through the traditional, consumer-oriented paradigm — instead, it envisions a more collaborative and integrational approach that resembles the still-evolving field of creative placemaking.

Take a recent $1.5 million grant to Homewood-Brushton YMCA. The money funds the first phase of construction for a $6.5 million Creative Youth Center housing the Lighthouse Project — an array of after-school activities for teens in that low-income community. The center will offer experiences in the arts, digital media, and science and technology labs. According to Oliphant, this kind of grant "turns kids that people may not believe in into artists... and helps them grow through education."

And with that, we hope Pittsburgh-area arts organizations can breathe a collective sigh of relief.

(But if you're still nervous and need further reassurance, check out news from Chicago, where the MacArthur Foundation, another big grantmaker undergoing serious structural changes, basically told the area's arts nonprofits, "Don't worry. We've got your back.")